Legal action over hijab on hold, for now - lawyer for 7 Jeppe girls

School desks. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)
School desks. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

Legal action against Jeppe High School for Girls, over a controversial policy forbidding Muslim pupils from wearing hijab with their school uniforms, is on hold for now.

In the interim, a meeting between the Gauteng Department of Education and the School Governing Body (SGB) has been scheduled.

However, lawyers representing the girls warned that the legal action was not off the table if an amicable solution could not be reached.

At issue is a complaint from seven Muslim pupils at the school, who say they are being discriminated against in the school's code of conduct.

While Muslim pupils are allowed to wear hijab to school, they have a separate school uniform from the one worn by other pupils.

Muslim girls are allowed to wear a black head scarf and cloak but these do not indicate that they represent the school or allow them to display their achievements in the way that their blazers do.

Disciplinary hearings

The girls want to be able to wear their uniforms, along with head scarves and black pants, for instance, or another combination of the uniform that would allow them to show that they represent the school while wearing hijab.

The school instituted disciplinary action against the girls when they wore their version of the uniform without permission.

However, the disciplinary hearings, scheduled for last Saturday, were put on hold after the department intervened.

Gauteng education department spokesperson Steve Mabona said the department launched an investigation into the issue.

READ: Egypt teacher held for beating student over hijab

He said the disciplinary hearings have been postponed pending a meeting between the department and the SGB after the school recess.

"We must also emphasise that the SGB and parent body agreed in principle to amend the code of conduct not to be in contravention with the Constitution," he said.

A lawyer representing the girls said it was not the end of the matter.

She said the legal action was still on the table should the school go ahead with the hearings without addressing the "unconstitutional" provisions in the code of conduct.

'Procedurally unfair'

Jacquie Cassette, national practice head for the pro bono and human rights division at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, who represents the girls, told News24 that a negotiated process was preferable.

"We've tried to make it clear to them in response to the threatened disciplinary hearings that we remain of the view that it would be unlawful to proceed with disciplinary charges."

She said the disciplinary process would be "procedurally unfair" and was based on a clause in the school's code of conduct that "infringes on the right to equality" and did not comply with schools' constitutional obligation to make "reasonable accommodation" for religious and cultural practices.

Cassette said the legal team suggested that the parties meet to try to amicably resolve the matter.

But by Thursday evening, the school still intended to go ahead with the disciplinary hearings. The department then intervened and the school agreed to postpone the hearing pending a meeting with the SGB.

Cassette said that while she was satisfied with this, "we certainly have reserved all our clients' rights and continue to do so," adding that the girls would still go to court if the issue was not resolved.

She also said the "substantive" issues – concerning the dress code and the code of conduct – had not been dealt with.

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